Unreal Nature

March 22, 2013

Using the Coinage

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… the question is the mother of the answer. Giving people answers does them no service …

This is from A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (1992). This is from his interview is with Godfrey Reggio:

MacDonald: I understand that before you became a filmmaker, you were a member of the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic monk.

Reggio: Until I was twenty-eight.

MacDonald: I’m curious about how you went from that life to making a 35mm feature film.

Reggio: Well, one of the vows you take as a Christian Brother is to teach the poor gratuitously. That was the original spirit of the brotherhood, though that spirit is long since gone. There were all sorts of rational and “correct” reasons why the brothers were not able to teach the poor: it wasn’t practical; if they did teach the poor, they couldn’t sustain their life-styles. In fact, almost all the children in the schools where I taught were middle-class kids, and yet I lived in this community [Santa Fe] where about forty percent of the people had no access to primary medical care, and where the barrio was eroded out from under the poor. There was great social disintegration. …

… a friend turned me onto a film. I had not seen many films, to be truthful. I went into the brotherhood at the age of fourteen; we were told to shun the world, or were made to shun the world.

MacDonald: Was it your choice to join the order?

Reggio: Yes, it was. I had a desire to pursue an idealistic life. I think children, especially adolescents, pursue as much meaning as they have access to, and this looked like a very meaningful thing for me to do.

Godfrey Reggio [image from Wikipedia]

[ … ]

MacDonald: Koyaanisqatsi is framed by a long, continuous shot of a rocket taking off and then exploding and descending. Within that frame, there’s a movement from rural to city with an increasingly frenetic pace until the final section where you slow down for several portraits of individual street people. One of the things that troubles me, and one of the things critics talked about, is that until you know that that rocket is going to fall and until we see the definition of “koyaanisqatsi,”* there’s no way to know what the message of the city material  is. It could provoke one to say, “Oh, this is wildly frenetic anti-technology footage,” or to say, “Isn’t it incredible how well this all works!”

Reggio: What I wanted to reveal was the beauty of the beast. People perceive this as beautiful because there’s nothing else to perceive. If one lives in this world, in the industrialized city, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another. There’s no ability to see beyond, to see that we’ve encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has replaced nature. We don’t live with nature any longer; we live above it; we look at it as resources to keep this artificial environment going. I was trying to raise questions, and I worked on the premise that there must be an ambiguity built into the films if they’re going to be art. Otherwise, they would become driving, didactic, propagandistic pieces. I look at the structure of each film in a “trilectic” sense. There’s the image, there’s the music, and there’s the viewer, each with a point of view, casting a particular shadow. It’s impossible to totally eliminate the sense of didacticism, but I wanted to make the films as pliable and as amorphic as possible. I tried to take the things we see as our glories and turn them on a slight edge. In that sense I feel the film is successful.

[ … ]

MacDonald: So, you meant to leave the experience open, but reveal, at the end (when we see what happens to the rocket and discover what “koyaanisqatsi” means) what you have concluded from what you’ve shown us?

Reggio: I started off with the lift off of this rocket, a metaphor for the celebration of modernity, progress, and development, and then I impose my own point of view, clearly, by including footage of the rocket exploding.

MacDonald: Do you see your position as filmmaker as ironic? Film is, after all, the great technological art form,, and yet, you use it to attack the problems of modern technology. Your enterprise in making Koyaanisqatsi seems to be part of what you take a position against.

Reggio: The film is using as high a base of technology as was possible at that time. In fact, that contradiction lost me money, and got me accused of being hypocritical, confused. I don’t see it that way. If I could have presented my point of view by just thinking about it, then I would have done so and saved myself the effort. Obviously, that’s impossible: no Immaculate Conception is taking place. I felt that I had to embrace the contradiction and walk on the edge, use the very tools I was criticizing to make the statement I was making — knowing that people learn in terms of what they already know. In that sense, I saw myself, if I may be so bold, as a cultural kamikaze, as a Trojan horse, using the coinage of the time in order to raise a question about that very coinage.

My films are based on the premise that the question is the mother of the answer. Giving people answers does them no service; I found out as a pedagogue that the intrinsic principle of learning is the learner, not the teacher. All the teacher can do is set the environment. I believe in the Socratic method, that basically the best you can do for a person — if you’re interested in them learning — is to raise questions. Through that process of questioning, they can come to an answer. I felt it was important to create an experience of the subject from which conceptualization could start to take place. I’m not interested, during the course of the one hundred and eighty-seven minutes that one sits and watches these films, in creating an intellectual dialogue. I’m hoping that people can let go of themselves, forget about time, and have an experience. Once the experience is had, and held, which is certainly not going to happen for everyone — these films are not for everyone, but they are for some people — then the process of reflection can start to take place. I feel these images can keep coming back to people.

Obviously, I can’t (and don’t want to) control people’s reactions. I’ve been criticized severely for both films. In fact, I was spat upon in Berlin when Powaqqatsi was shown there, for aestheticizing poverty. I’m pleased that the film had such a strong response. That’s not to say that everybody felt that way, but some people did. Some people felt, who am I to deny the opportunity of the Third World to make their lot better through industrialization. The Left especially took after this film in Berlin. But I feel there’s a fundamental confusion between poverty and the norms of simple living. It’s a distinction that some in the Left have not digested yet.

*From Wikipedia, “In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means ‘unbalanced life'”; and, also from Wikipedia, Poqaqqatsi means “‘parasitic way of life’ or ‘life in transition’.”

My most recent previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.



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